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November 10, 2008

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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 11/10/2008

Cattlemen-Tied Researchers on NAS Meat Safety Panel

A National Academy of Sciences committee considering improvements in the nation's meat-safety inspection system is dominated by members with financial ties to the meat industry. Those numbers greatly outnumber consumer advocacy representatives, according to an investigation by the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The committee met for the first time last week. Out of the 29 members of the NAS Standing Committee on the Use of Public Health Data in FSIS Food Safety Programs, 16 were recently employed by food companies or have accepted research funding from the meat and processed food industries. Ten of the group's members did not disclose those financial relationships on the NAS website.

The committee will evaluate the data and methodology of the Agriculture Department's risk-based inspection (RBI) system, which is administered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Congress called a halt to the program in 2007 after consumer-group complaints. FSIS claims RBI allows the agency to focus inspections on the riskiest slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities. But the risk rankings are derived from a survey of 23 people, many of whom worked directly for the meat industry or had industry experience.

Members of the committee with undisclosed conflicts of interest included Mindy Brashears, professor of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech University, whose 2007 study on E. coli in feedlot cattle was supported in part by the Beef Checkoff program through the Cattlemen's Beef Board; and Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety, who has received numerous grants from the American Meat Institute and has been principal investigator on food safety projects funded by Kraft Foods and Great Eastern Mussel Farms.

In addition, four members of the NAS review committee were among the original 23 respondents who provided the original risk rankings, raising questions about their ability to independently assess the data's quality.

Columbia, Emory Update COI Policies

In the wake of a congressional investigation into academic researchers who fail to report financial ties to industry while receiving federal grants, Columbia University announced last week it will upgrade its financial conflict of interest policy to meet tougher federal standards, the Columbia Spectator reported. The investigation, led by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), recently focused on the university's relationship with the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, which is led by two doctors at Columbia Medical School - Martin Leon and Gregg Stone. "The draft policy, like the current policies, helps preserve the integrity of research by assuring appropriate relationships with commercial entities for the benefit of researchers, the University, and the public," a university statement said. The university intends for the policy to be consistent across all schools, according to the Spectator.

Meanwhile, Emory University President James Wagner has appointed an advisory commission to review the university's policies and practices in policing conflicts of interest. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the president appointed Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory's Center for Ethics, to chair the panel. Grassley's investigation recently revealed that Emory psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff failed to tell the university about receiving millions of dollars from a drug company while simultaneously studying that company's drug on a government-funded project. Nemeroff subsequently resigned as principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health study and as chair of the psychiatry department.

Senate Committee Seeks More Company Records

The Senate Finance Committee has asked health industry giants Johnson & Johnson, Medtronics, Abbott Labs, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly to turn over records of payments to psychiatrists, Bloomberg.com reported last week. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said the inquiry was designed "to determine more about the accuracy of disclosures of financial relationships between industry and doctors and to build a case for his sunshine legislation." AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly have been asked to turn over information about their payments to Stanford University psychiatrist Alan Schatzberg, who was criticized (registration required) last summer over failing to disclose that he held $6 million in stock in Corcept Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company whose drug mifepristone was simultaneously being studied under his leadership for the National Institutes of Health. Schatzberg stepped down from the study as a result of the investigation.

Land Grant University Scientists Join Biofuels Industry Team

An industry-supported letter attempting to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from measuring greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels production has been signed by five prominent scientists at land grant universities and a federal lab. The letter, which called the effort "premature," was sent to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson. It came in response to an environmental group push to get the agency to issue the report as required by the Renewable Fuel Standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. "Ethanol production today using U.S. corn contributes to the conversion of grasslands and rainforest to agriculture, causing very large greenhouse gas emissions," the letter from the Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Working Group, and Friends of the Earth said.

Odds and Ends

President-elect Barack Obama reportedly plans to prohibit political appointees from working on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years to avoid conflicts of interest, The Washington Express reported in its Nov. 6 edition.... The Christian Science Monitor, which is ceasing its print publication, reported last week on the Bush administration's last minute efforts to weaken environmental protections and support "industry-friendly" politics....

Cheers and Jeers

  • Jeer to the New England Journal of Medicine for having only a two-year look-back period for disclosing conflicts of interest, which led it to fail to disclose that Johns Hopkins professor John Walkup, the lead author of the October 30th study (subscription required) on using sertraline (Zoloft) to treat childhood anxiety, had financial ties to Pfizer, the drug?s manufacturer. An NEJM spokeswoman said Walkup's financial relationship with Pfizer dated from 2005 and thus wasn't disclosed in the article. Most journals have a three-year look-back policy. NEJM's chief rival, the Journal of the American Medical Association, uses a five-year look-back period.

  • Jeer to John Tierney of the New York Times for a blog entry that claimed the quality of data in industry-funded studies was significantly better than data from non-industry-funded research. The blog post, based on a study in the International Journal of Obesity, failed to report that the corresponding author of that study, David Allison, "received grants, honoraria, consulting fees and donations from numerous food, pharmaceutical and other companies as well as nonprofit organizations and government agencies with interests in obesity-related issues."